By T. D. Thornton
A two-phase fix to the allegedly unsafe new lighting system at Delta Downs is underway that could allow the Louisiana track to switch back from afternoon programs to traditional weekend night cards by Nov. 12.
The recently installed light-emitting diode (LED) system, which was necessitated by the old lights getting wrecked by a hurricane in August 2020, was only operational for three races on the first night program of the season Oct. 15 before a horse fell at the top of the stretch.
Fueled by complaints from some jockeys and trainers that areas on the turns were dangerously dark and shadowy, the remainder of that card and the Oct. 16 program were cancelled. Delta resumed racing during afternoons without lights Oct. 20-23.
In a departure from previous seasons that featured night racing almost exclusively, this season Delta had embarked on a hybrid schedule with Wednesday and Thursday afternoon cards at 12:55 p.m. (Central) and Friday and Saturday programs under the lights at 5:55 p.m.
On Oct. 26, Steve Kuypers, Delta's vice president and general manager, detailed to the Louisiana State Racing Commission (LSRC) both the temporary and permanent fixes that are in the works.
Kuypers said that temporary (i.e. moveable) lights were expected to arrive Tuesday and will immediately be installed. An emphasis will be on adding 66% more lighting to the turns on the six-furlong track.
Once the crew thinks it has the extra lights spaced and aimed properly, Kuypers said that by Thursday or Friday he will invite jockeys and horsemen to walk the track at night like they did two weeks ago when a similar inspection occurred. Riders will be permitted to gallop or breeze horses under the enhanced lights.
“We will turn on all the lights and we will walk the track like we've done in the past, reviewing the locations, the lights, shadows,” Kuypers said. “We will then evaluate from there if we can go back to night racing.”
Kuypers said that because Delta uses an eight-day advance entry schedule, even if the shored-up lights are deemed immediately usable by the stakeholders, the earliest Delta could card an evening program would be for the Friday, Nov. 12 races.
In addition, new permanent lighting fixtures–39 in all–are on order. They should arrive within four weeks and will take two weeks to install. They will be blended with the existing fixtures that recently got installed. Because these new fixtures will be added to existing poles, there will be no need to halt racing or training for new pole installations.
Benard Chatters, the president of the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (LHBPA), had been part of the initial multi-party inspection that okayed the lights. He admitted that “there are spots that are not as illuminated as others. But in my opinion, I can read out there…. And as you move through the spots that are being perceived as darker spots…there's no problem with seeing.”
Chatters added that “The contractors and [Delta's corporate owner] Boyd Gaming have bent over backwards accommodating everything that we've asked for in relation to the lighting.”
Other stakeholders didn't agree.
Two of them chimed in during Tuesday's LSRC meeting while Chatters had the floor. On the Zoom broadcast their identities were not clear in the cross-talk.
“Benard, it's entirely different when you're on a horse than standing on and walking on it,” said one dissenter.
“With the dark spots and the shadows…I would not risk the safety of those jockeys and those animals to run them on that track,” added another.
“The position of the jockeys right now is they're not happy with the lighting system,” said John Beech, the regional manager for The Jockeys' Guild.
“It was supposed to be 'state of the art,' something great. [But] they still feel like [the lights] need a lot of work,” Beech said.
Beech also pointed out that the new temporary lights will pose safety issues as additional obstacles located just over the fence from the track. And he said the permanent concrete bases for the recently installed permanent light poles and their generators still aren't properly padded to the Guild's standards.
“You get launched, you hit one of them, and you're going to get hurt bad,” Beech said.
Chatters said that no matter how much Delta's lighting system gets tweaked and adjusted, there will always be members of the racing community who won't concur about whether the output is powerful enough.
“I want to make sure that everybody understands that when we use language that says 'everybody in agreement,' just make sure that we all understand that we don't really mean 'everybody in agreement,'” Chatters said. “Because there will never be a time when everybody is in agreement on this thing.”
The LSRC ended up voting unanimously to extend Delta's permission to race days instead of nights for 30 days. If the new lights are deemed workable, Delta can then request an emergency meeting at which the LSRC would permit a sooner return to evening programs.
In other LSRC business, the commission voted to defer a request by the Fair Grounds to drop four dates from its upcoming 80-date race meet, which would have brought its dates allotment four dates under the state's required minimum. The requested dates were Jan. 5 and 10 and Feb. 14 and 21, 2022.
The LSRC also unanimously approved the recent sale of Louisiana Downs to Rubico Gaming for $22 million. The deal had been in the works since 2020.